Debut Author Q&A: Meet Alison Pratt

allison_pratt_IMG_2813 - Version 2I’d like to introduce today’s featured debut author: Alison Pratt is a native of Delaware and came to New York, where she currently resides, to go to graduate school. She has been a clinical psychologist for over 20 years, is an adjunct assistant professor at Queensborough Community College, and is a board member of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island. She is married with one grown stepson and, she says, a teenaged son who has one foot out the door. Alison’s book, A Murder Before Eden, tells the story of her great-grandfather, who was murdered at age 81.

Name of book: A Murder Before Eden
Book genre: True crime/history mystery/nonfiction novel
Date published: 2010

What is your book about? The events take place in a small, segregated North Carolina town in 1947. This is the true story of my great-grandfather, Tom Pratt, his new young wife, and his murder at age 81. His wife claimed to have seen the attack that killed him, and blamed a 17-year old black neighbor for the crime. But Tom’s sons (my grandfather and great-uncle) did not think the boy was guilty and hired the best defense attorney money could buy to represent him. The trial made history, though few noted it at the time. This book looks into people and what they might have been thinking in the midst of a series of events that spiraled out of control to change them, and history, forever.

Why did you want to write this book? It was an incredible family story. No one had ever researched it fully or written it down. The more I looked into the story, the more fascinating details emerged; for example, this trial was the first capital case trial in North Carolina with women on the jury. Women had just been awarded that right in North Carolina earlier that same year. Women had served on juries for lesser crimes, but this was the first murder case.

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New Year, Same Me. And That’s Okay.

7K0A0223[1]What is it about a new year that makes people rush to the gym, throw out the stuff in their fridge and replace it with everything organic, or plunge into a new novel with wild abandon?

I’m exhausted just writing that.

Of course, all of these actions are admirable. But if there’s one thing I learned, it’s this:

  • I am the same me on January 1 that I was on December 31.
  • Improving, getting better, learning from mistakes, finding new solutions, being a better person is great, but it can happen any day, at any moment, not once a year.

I think we have a tendency to use January 1 as a springboard for strict or short goals, a once-and-for-all kind of objective, and then when we don’t meet those goals, we think of ourselves as failures. And that’s unfair to us.

My advice to you this year is to try not to put too much pressure on yourself. Set a reasonable goal. Or two. Or three. Work hard. I mean, work really hard — not like when my kids say “I’m trying my best” when they know that they’re not. Go after whatever it is you want. Go get it. I truly believe you can. But give yourself a break if you stumble. You’re only human, after all. Just get back up and try again tomorrow instead of waiting for the next January 1.

12/13/14

I just couldn’t let this date pass without a quick mention. I agree that it’s pretty darn cool to have our months, days, and years (in America, of course) line up nicely — it serves as a reminder of how chaotic life is and how we should take a moment (in this case, 24 hours) to appreciate these quirky little patterns that happen to come our way and slip into place on occasion. Like how you break for lunch and notice the time is 12:34 p.m. Or when your day couldn’t get any worse, and you look at the clock to see it’s 3:33 p.m., and 3 happens to be your favorite number! Or your wedding song comes on the radio when you and your spouse are in a heated argument. Or how just when you’re about to give up writing your novel because you can’t solve a plot knot and the answer comes to you in a heated flash while you’re driving to the supermarket — aha! Think of the world as all sorts of spinning circles — the circle of life; the revolution of the planets; the way the water swirls down the drain; merry-go-rounds and Ferris wheels; the passing of the years, January to January, and remember that every now and then those circles intersect just long enough to make us pause, to stop and think, Wow, isn’t that cool? That alone is worth smiling about today. So happy 12/13/14! I hope it’s a great one. :)

Judging a Person by her Cover

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of speaking about journalism ethics at the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island. The topic of my presentation was “The Changing Face of News: Where Have All the Journalists Gone?” (When I decided on the topic, I had no idea that journalism and journalism standards would be such a hot topic in the news this week: The events in Ferguson, Missouri. The chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island. The Rolling Stone article about the young woman who had been reportedly raped at the University of Virginia—and the sudden backing away of Rolling Stone from the article.)

I had never been to the Ethical Humanist Society before, and I felt so at home there — such nice people and such a nice feeling of community. I was introduced to many people before I was asked to come to the podium and was struck by how learned and accomplished the crowd was (no pressure, Dina!). As I spoke, I thought things were going pretty well. I glanced around the room and thought attendees seemed to be enjoying the discussion and were engaged and interested.

Afterwards, several people approached me to tell me how much they enjoyed my presentation, which is always nice, but I particularly remember one woman, a tiny little thing, maybe in her sixties, who excused her way up to the front of the room to tell me:

“I truly enjoyed your presentation.”

“Thank you,” I said.

It looked like she had more on her mind. “I have to say,” she continued, “when I met you earlier…”

She struggled for the words, but I had a feeling I knew what she was going to say, because I had heard it many times before.

“…when I met you, I thought you were so sweet and…well, I have to say your youthful appearance and manner truly belies the mature, well-spoken, and accomplished woman you are with many years of experience.” She saw me smile. “You’ve heard this before, haven’t you?”

“Yes,” I said. “Many times.”

Have YOU ever been under-estimated? How did it make you feel?

3 Reasons Why Authors Should Care About Editing

In my How to Self-Publish Your Book continuing ed. class at Hofstra University, I talk about the importance of editing. Occasionally, I’ll have a student in class argue that writers don’t have to care about editing, since chances are they’re going to hand off their manuscripts to an editor — content editor, line editor, or copy editor — at some point before the publication of their novel anyway. So why spend the time worrying about stuff that you pay others to fix?

I’ll tell you why:

1. Knowing how to edit makes you a better writer. This is, by far, the most important reason to care about editing. As a writer, editing should be part of your process. (Personally, I’ll finish a chapter or two during a writing session, and the first part of my next writing session is spent going over what I have written during the previous one.) Editing, or “pruning,” as one of my current students calls it, helps us tighten our text and focus our ideas. It helps flag misspelled words or clunky sentence structure. And, as I like to say, the “magic” of writing is often in the editing — it’s during my revisions that I discover texture and nuance, because I am freed from the stress of just getting the plot down. As you edit, your story begins to take shape. Imagine a lump of clay that is molded into something beautiful bit by bit — a squeeze here, a pull there. With writing, it’s no different.

2. Knowing how to edit will save you money. Some editors work by the hour. And some of the good ones will charge you more than $100 per hour. If you hand them a cleaner manuscript, that’s fewer hours of work for them, and higher bank account balances for you.

3. Knowing how to edit will make you a better marketer. When it comes time to promote your work, you may be called upon to do quite a bit of writing: blog posts, written interviews, etc. Cleaner text = More powerful text. And more powerful text can lead to more sales.

Can you think of any other reasons why authors should know how to edit? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below.

Dear Authors: Cut Down on the Turning

Turning. We all do it. Throughout our days, our commutes, our hokey-pokeys.  We turn this way and that as we go about our lives, zigzagging through the years like a hockey puck.

But I’m finding that many characters are doing way too much turning these days:

Juliet whispered Romeo’s name. He turned and walked over to her.

Joey’s mother called him from the open window. He turned and said, “I’ll be right there.”

Turns may be a part of life, but that does not mean you have to mention all of them in your book. Turning is one of those actions that’s understood by the reader even if you don’t write it. Kind of like when a character walks down the street. Do you write that he is putting one foot in front of the other? Or that he is bending his legs at the knee to do so? That’s extraneous information.

For example:

The doorbell rang.  Guy Fieri turned and walked over to the peephole to see who it was.

The doorbell rang. Guy Fieri walked over to the peephole to see who it was.

Now, the only extra bit of info the first sentence gives us was that the poor sap wasn’t facing in the right direction when the doorbell rang. But is this so important that the reader has to know this? When Guy discovers no one at the door, will he TURN back the other way and walk into the kitchen? Well, he will, but does the author have to mention it?

Turning is one of the surest identifiers of the newbie author. Turns clog our manuscripts with unnecessary words. A good idea is to do a search for all the turn mentions in your book. What would your text be like without the word? Take it out. Does your sentence have the same meaning? My hunch is that unless your character is doing things like turning off the television or turning red with embarrassment, it will.

Handling Criticism from Author-Friends

Chances are your closest family members will love whatever it is you have written — even if it’s just a shopping list. They love you and, in turn, will love it.

But what about your author-friends? Those people who, like you, pen books? Many of my friends, who are authors themselves, have taken the time to read Baby Grand — out of the legions of books out there — and I am truly grateful for their time and their support. Many times, these author-friends will have positive comments (yay!) or have questions about plot and character and back story (that I love to answer!). But, other times, author-friends have had criticisms. And because they are authors themselves, we tend to take these critical comments — which can be very specific and very insightful — seriously. One author-friend went as far as sending me an email itemizing all the “errors” he said he found in Baby Grand. Now, THAT was a fun day. :)

Okay, so what do you do when faced with such criticism. What did I do on that fateful day I received an innocuous-looking email with the subject line: BABY GRAND? Did I open up a can of whoop-ass on him? Tell him he was ugly and his mother dressed him funny? No. Actually, I did nothing. There’s nothing TO do. Damn, I may have even thanked him for his time.

But, why?

Well, first of all, I do believe — with all my heart — that, despite the laundry list of “errors” he was kind enough to send me, this person had my best interests at heart. After all, he is my friend.

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